The British media has been dominated over the past few days by the case of the Liberal Democrat former Chief Executive, Lord Rennard. Several women who stood as candidates for the party have made sexual misconduct allegations against the peer who denies any wrongdoing. Party leader Nick Clegg has called for an apology from Lord Rennard after an independent enquiry led by an eminent QC. The report found that the claims could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt but that the evidence of the four women was ‘broadly credible’ and Lord Rennard should apologise. Normally in the UK workplace disciplinary investigations are decided based on ‘balance of probabilities’. So it is somewhat odd that the Liberal Democrat Party procedures require the stronger ‘proven beyond reasonable doubt’ test. This is certainly something for the Lib Dems to look at for the future but for now isn’t this an ideal case for mediation? I believe it is for 5 reasons:
Speed – both Lord Rennard and the Lib Dem Party are threatening or have started legal action. That means the case will drag on for many months. The Party is hardly in a strong position in the polls so any further tarnishing of its image and distraction from the focus of building for next year’s next election will be unwanted. Mediation can be set up within days and be over in a day or two. This would mean everyone could move on, avoiding unnecessary personal stress, and the detrimental media attention would drop away. Even if mediation didn’t work the time delay would be negligible leaving the parties to carry on their legal claims.
Participants control the outcome – the adversarial nature of a legal process drives towards a win / lose outcome, but often situations are simply not black and white. In this case the women allege inappropriate behaviour and Lord Rennard denies it. The outcome of the investigation by the QC suggests that it could not be proven one way or the other. So the logical route is for the participants to sit down to find a solution which meets the needs of both sides. It gives the possibility that they can both gain an outcome which although may not be ideally what they want, achieves at least some of it – surely a better option that the guarantee that one of them will lose in court.
Address the underlying issue – all too often we see in the workplace that formal grievance and disciplinary procedures are insufficient when it comes to identifying and addressing the underlying issues. So what are the underlying issues here? We will never know but in true tabloid style I’ll speculate that Lord Rennard is concerned about damage to his reputation and the ladies want to be heard and try to make sure others don’t go through what they have been through. Mediation offers the possibility of first of all identifying the needs and then finding a solution which addresses them satisfactorily for both parties.
Confidentiality – mediation has the advantage that it is conducted totally confidentially and information shared in the meetings cannot be used in a court case. As such, the participants are free to open up about how they truly feel about the situation. In particular, breakthroughs can come through seeing the situation from the others perspective. Again I’m speculating, but possibly Lord Rennard denies wrongdoing because he did not see whatever he did as wrong. It may be that hearing directly from them the impact it has on them would help him see a different perspective. Likewise the ladies may feel that the peer was maliciously using his power to take advantage of them and they felt powerless to complain. If he were to convey to them that there was no malicious intent and that he now recognises his behaviour could have been taken wrongly, they may have a better appreciation of his position. The openness needed for this type of conversation is unlikely to happen in an open court whereas the confidential nature of a mediation facilitates it.
Cost – it may not be the best reason to go down the mediation route but certainly for many workplace scenarios it is a key factor. Given the high profile nature of this case, both sides would want to retain top legal teams. The Lib Dem Party is likely to be reluctant to use limited funds to fight an expensive court case especially as it will need every penny it has got to fight a challenging General Election next year. Even if they were to use the highest charging mediation suppliers, the cost of mediation would be a tiny fraction of the cost of taking this issue to court.
So, all in all it looks to me like the classic ‘no brainer’ and let’s hope everyone sees sense and sits down to talk in the very near future. One last point. Isn’t this an ideal opportunity to use the publicity of this case to promote mediation as a great option in resolving workplace disputes? After all, these five reasons why this case is right for mediation could apply to many workplace scenarios. I’m surprised that representative organisations like the Civil Mediation Council and major industry suppliers like CEDR and In Place of Strife are not going to the media to promote the use of mediation in this case. We need to grow awareness of mediation as a useful and valuable option in workplace conflict resolution and this would be a fantastic opportunity to get the message out there. I’m trying to do my bit with this blog, so if you want to help then please share it!
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